Edith Piaf's legacy is stronger than ever in native France

She has a Place named after her in Paris; a spacious, traffic-free triangle in the 20th arrondissement. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, France's most famous son, didn't merit that. There's a bronze statue, with arms aloft in a distinctive on-stage pose. A kilometre away, in a quiet corner of the vast Père Lachaise cemetery, her black marble tomb is adorned with fresh flowers.

To the south, on the Left Bank of the river Seine, the French National Library is staging a major exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. There's a four-hour walking tour of her old haunts, an interactive game for children and a karaoke booth to record your cover version of her greatest hits.

In concert halls, theatres and cabarets, on radio and television and in the press, she and her music are being remembered and celebrated.With almost 800,000 followers of her Facebook page, 53 years after she died of cancer at the age of 47, the chanteuse Edith Piaf – she of Non, je ne regrette rien – is alive and kicking.

It was not ever thus. During her life she was often vilified for her sexual liaisons, for breaking up marriages and drug abuse. Prescribed morphine to ease her pains after serious road accidents, she became addicted.

Her fans still loved her. By 1954 she had sold 1,000,000 records. She lived her private life in public and was seldom out of the headlines.

After her death, "the French public became a little saturated by her music and her person and she fell out of favour," recalls Serge Hureau, director of le Hall de la Chanson, a Parisian venue that serves as custodian of France's musical heritage. When Hureau staged a concert of Piaf songs in the 1990s, "No one was talking about her."

Caroline Nin, a French jazz singer, first performed her tribute show Hymne à Piaf in Edinburgh and London in 2001. It was 2013 before she brought it to Paris. "I wasn't sure the French wanted another Edith Piaf show," she says. They did.

At first, she tailored her show for foreign tourists, performing in English. Soon, she was bombarded with pleas from Parisians to perform in French. As part of the National Library's Piaf centenary, she'll perform her Hymne in a Paris theatre – in French and English – three nights a week until August.

"Piaf created the soundtrack of Paris," Nin says. "Visitors want that and, increasingly, Parisians want it too."

The exhibition at the National Library, whose 400 exhibits include the black dress Piaf wore on stage, is a rags-to-riches story of how la Môme Piaf (the Little Sparrow) – 4ft 9in tall, stick thin, neither sophisticated nor sexy – went from the back streets of Paris, via her grandmother's bordello, to a smart apartment near the Arc de Triomphe and the stature of a legend.

The first exhibit is a clip from the 1954 movie Si Versailles M'était Conté (Royal Affairs in Versailles). In the vanguard of a revolutionary mob, Piaf is belting out a song with the refrain "Aristocrats, we'll hang them." The cast list identifies her as "Woman of the People". A working-class hero long before John Lennon.

There's the voice, powerful enough to catch and hold crowds when she sang on street corners, growling, throaty and unmistakable. Her songs, many of which she wrote, touch on universal themes, love, sadness, friendship and life's misfortunes. "Her songs are timeless. She tells stories that everyone can relate to," says Jacqueline Boyer, daughter of Piaf's first husband, Jacques Pills, and herself a singer and actress. "Her life was either joy or drama. There were always ups and downs."

"Piaf embodies Paris, now more than ever during her lifetime. She is almost one of the monuments that need to be visited; the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Edith Piaf," Joel Huthwohl, curator of the Piaf exhibition, tells Newsweek.

David Looseley, who is writing a book about Piaf, goes further: "She is the iconic representation of Frenchness. In becoming a monument, she's been cleaned of all the things people didn't like about her."

Doubtless, the Oscar-winning 2007 biopic la Môme (La Vie en Rose) contributed to her rehabilitation. But the wild child who became a legend wouldn't care. Her declared philosophy of life was "J'm'en fous pas mal". "I don't give a damn."

When and where
The Edith Piaf exhibition is at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France until 23 August